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Kentucky Lawmakers Want to Know: How Expensive Is the Death Penalty?

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Each year, Kentucky prosecutors seek capital punishment for about 40 defendants in murder cases, according to the state public defender's office.

The costs can add up in those cases, and two Kentucky lawmakers want information that has so far proven elusive—the exact expense of the death penalty to the state.

Sen. Gerald Neal, a Louisville Democrat, and Rep. David Floyd, a Bardstown Republican, have filed bills in their respective houses asking for a study of how much the death penalty costs state and local government.

Neal said information on how much the state spends on capital punishment needs to come out so that lawmakers can make informed decisions.

“Because death costs a fee in Kentucky,” Neal said. “That is a public policy consideration that we need to make, but we can’t make that consideration on the basis of cost unless we know what those costs are.”

Ed Monahan, Kentucky’s top public defender, said he believes death penalty trials are expensive and inefficient.

“There’s enormous waste in the prosecution of capital cases because many cases that are prosecuted are really marginal capital cases,” Monahan said.

Only three people have been executed in Kentucky since the state reinstituted the death penalty in 1976. But both the defense and prosecution for every capital trial usually require two lawyers, an investigation team, mental health evaluations, and expert testimony--all of which cost money.

The trials usually last longer—and the stakes are higher.

“My estimate is that $3-4 million is spent each year by public defenders, an equal amount by prosecutors and $1-2 million by Kentucky courts,” Monahan said.

If those numbers are accurate, that’s as much as $10 million spent every year on capital prosecutions, defense and judicial proceedings.

But an exact price tag on the death penalty doesn't seem to exist, in part because Kentucky’s Prosecutors Advisory Council—the administrative board for Kentucky’s prosecutorial system—hasn’t provided its data, said Rep. David Floyd, a Bardstown Republican.

“We don’t know how much is spent on the other side, on the prosecutorial side who have much greater resources than the defense,” he said.

A 2011 assessmentof Kentucky's capital punishment practices the American Bar Association requested that the Prosecutor’s Advisory Council provide information about how much the state spends on capital trials. The council, chaired by Attorney General Jack Conway, denied the request, saying pending litigation being conducted by Kentucky prosecutors and the Attorney General’s Office prevented them from doing so.

The organization couldn't be reached for comment Friday afternoon. The attorney general's office said it's position remains the same.